Posts Tagged ‘messaging’

Media Minute: Wrong questions, wrong answers

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Media Minute: Wrong questions, wrong answers

By Jerry Brown, APR

Media Minute: Wrong questions, wrong answersIf you ask the wrong questions, you usually get the wrong answers.

For example, I recently found these questions in my inbox:

“What does it take, in your experience, to achieve good public relations? What are good public relations? If I am already issuing periodic press releases, is that enough?

“What if I have a whole social media marketing plan and I am distributing monthly newsletters, tweeting weekly, writing articles and publishing them in online magazines and talking about everything I do (my company does) on Facebook and Linked-in. Is that enough?

“I believe the above is a more tactic(al) view of PR tools, what about the strategic view of PR?

“And the million $ question — is there real value is paying a retainer of tens of thousands of shekels to a PR firm? Sometimes I feel that despite all the tools that I use, I am not breaking a glass ceiling when it comes to awareness. Can a good PR firm help me and my business? Is a traditional PR firm or a digital marketing firm more advisable today?

“I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences on the above.”

A lot of people seem to think the key to successful PR is using the right tools. But the tools are just tools to help you reach the right audience effectively with right message.

Should a carpenter use a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver, a level, a ruler — or all of them? Depends on the job to be done. S/he probably won’t use a saw to drive nails or a hammer to cut a board. And a master carpenter is going to build a better cabinet than I would even if we use the same tools and materials.

I suggested to the author of the opening questions that she start with a different set of questions:

  • What’s your objective? What do you want to happen as a result of telling your story?
  • Who’s your audience? Unless you have a monopoly on air and we need to buy it from you to breathe, the answer is not everyone.
  • What’s your message? What do you need to say to your audience to persuade them to do whatever you need them to do to meet your objective?
  • How do you reach your audience with your message? Getting a story into the Wall Street Journal may sound like success — unless your audience doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal.

Once you know the answers to these questions, then you can start thinking about which tools to use and how often to use them.

Does the questioner need to hire a PR agency? Maybe. Does she need to hire a large, expensive agency? In her case, probably a waste of money. She’d be better off working with an experienced independent practitioner, a small agency or hiring an employee to do her PR work.

Starting with tactics is often tempting. We’ve all done it. But it’s a bad place to start if you don’t know the answers to the questions I listed above and if you don’t have a strategy for delivering your message effectively to your audience. There’s no cookie cutter list of the right tools to use. And good PR is about building relationships, not just delivering a message.

We all have stories to tell. Do you need help telling yours?

Media Minute: Murder or self-defense?

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Media Minute: Murder or self-defense?

By Jerry Brown, APR

Media Minute: Murder or self-defense?Murder or self-defense?

Regardless of where you come down on the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin altercation, the case is a good example of the importance of messaging.

Important enough, for example, that Zimmerman’s brother skipped being in the courtroom on Saturday night to hear the verdict so he could make it to New York in time to be available for interviews with the national media the following morning.

With this weekend’s acquittal, Zimmerman won the first round in the messaging battle over what happened the night he shot and killed Martin.

The fight’s not over. Zimmerman still faces the possibility of federal civil rights charges and a lawsuit by Martin’s family for civil damages. Once the legal fights are over, my guess is there’s a pretty good chance of a lucrative book deal for Zimmerman.

So, the stakes are still high. And both sides will be working for months to come to promote their versions of the story: Was justice served at Zimmerman’s trial or did he get away with murder?

Ultimately, of course, we all see the outcome through the lens of what we believe happened that night and our own moral values.

Both sides have worked hard to shape our opinions on those issues. And both sides know a truth important to keep in mind when you’re developing the messages for your story: You can’t convince everyone that you’re right. Focus on influencing your supporters, the people who haven’t decided where they stand and the people who start out on the other side but are persuadable.

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of trying to convince the people who will oppose you no matter what. If you spend time trying to convince them, you’ll lose the argument.

That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?

Listen to Jerry’s Tips for Telling Your Story every Tuesday at 10:05 a.m., Mountain Time, on the Experience Pros Radio Show, KLZ 560AM in Denver or at on the Internet. Missed it on the air? Listen to the archives. And check out Jerry’s content-focused blog at

Be quotable if you want to be quoted

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Be quotable if you want to be remembered

By Jerry Brown, APR

Be quotable if you want to be rememberedIf you’re quotable when you talk to reporters there’s a good chance you’ll get quoted. That’s because good quotes are as irresistible to a reporter as candy is to a kid.

You can be clever, funny or outrageous if you want. But you don’t have to be. You just have to be interesting. Have something worth saying that helps reporters tell their stories and they’ll quote you more often than not.

You don’t talk to reporters? It doesn’t matter. The same idea applies to telling your story to any audience.

Reporters like good quotes because they know their audience, people like you and me, like them. A quotable quote is an easily remembered way of saying something well. Be quotable when talking to reporters and you’ll be quoted. Be quotable when talking to the rest of us and you’ll be remembered.

If I have a not-so-quotable statement from a client I know wants to be quoted, I ask them three questions:

What are you really trying to say? It’s amazing how often what they’re saying bears little resemblance to what they’re trying to say. Say what your really mean and it’s usually much clearer and quotable than the watered-down version.

Why will the audience you’re trying to reach care? Unless you say something that’s interesting to your audience, what you say probably won’t be remembered.

Do you really want to be quoted? I ask this question even when I know the answer is yes to get clients to think about what it will take to be quoted. It helps them understand the need to be quotable.

Is your message being ignored? Ask yourself the three questions listed above and work to make what you say more quotable.

That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?

Simplify and Repeat

Monday, October 24th, 2011

By Jerry Brown, APR

“Remember the . . .”

“Damn the torpedoes, full . . .”

“Ask not . . .”

“I have a . . . ”

Chances are pretty good you can complete all of the phrases listed above — even if you don’t remember who said all of them or precisely why.

Good messaging is easy to understand. It resonates with your audience. And it’s easy to remember. Your message is like the punch line of a joke. If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work.

Hearing a joke once is usually enough. It loses its punch after that. Your message is just the opposite. The more you repeat it — and the more the rest of us hear it — the more powerful it becomes.

The moral of the story? Make your message simple. Speak to the needs, fears or desires of your audience. And repeat it as often as you can. Once you’re so tired of saying it that you can’t stand listening to yourself the rest of us are beginning to hear what you’re saying.

Two books I strongly recommend if you want to add power to your message are Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s what People Hear by Dr. Frank Luntz and Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?

Know what to avoid

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

By Jerry Brown, APR

in_the_ditchHaving a clear message isn’t enough.  You also should know what messages you want to avoid.

Although often overlooked, asking yourself what you want to avoid can be as valuable as knowing what you want to say. In fact, I encourage media training participants and other clients to give careful thought to what they want to avoid once they know what they what they want to say.

Here’s why:

  • In a controversial or competitive situation, these are the messages the other side will use that you’ll need to rebut. What are they?  You may not be able to keep them out of the story. But what’s your rebuttal? Have your rebuttal ready before you talk to the reporter.
  • Anyone who knows a lot about a given subject generally knows something about it the rest of us believe is true that isn’t.  If there are common misconceptions about your topic that could end up in a news story you may be able to keep the misinformation out of the story simply by explaining the facts to the reporter before s/he sits down to start writing.
  • This is also don’t-overlook-anything question.  No matter how positive or innocuous, any story can go into the ditch.  You should always know where the danger points are for your story going into the ditch so you can avoid going there.

That’s my’ two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?

Wrong Questions, Wrong Answers

Monday, January 5th, 2009

The answers you get often depend on the questions you ask.  So, if you ask the wrong questions, you’re likely to get the wrong answers.

The current brouhaha over the appointment of a new senator from Illinois to replace that guy with the funny name who quit because he got a better job is a good example.

Gov. Blagojevich’s in-your-face appointment of Roland Burris is hardball politics by someone who appears to be asking:  How do I stay out of prison?  He’s reminding prosecutors and everyone else that he’s still governor.  My guess is he wants something — his freedom — in return for resigning.

There’s been talk in Springfield of speeding up impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich by legislators asking:  How do we get rid of the political awkwardness caused by the Burris appointment?  They’re asking the wrong question.  Blagojevich may deserve to be impeached, but speeding it up to scuttle the Burris appointment is the wrong answer because they asked the wrong question.  The right question is should Blagojevich be removed from office because he’s corrupt, not should he be removed from office quickly because he embarrassed other politicians by making an appointment he’s legally entitled to make.  Moving quickly to impeach Blagojevich for the wrong reason will cause more problems than the one it’s intended to solve.

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced before the Burris appointment that the Senate would refuse to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich — something he’s repeated since the appointment was announced.  Experts disagree over whether the law is on the side of Reid and other senators who want to keep Burris out of the Senate.  Regardless of how that issue is resolved, the effort to keep Burris from being seated promises to create a political circus that can only cause further embarrassment for Senate Democrats.

Reid and others like him asked the wrong question:  How can we show our disapproval of Blagojevich?  They should be asking whether Blagojevich got any kind of illegal payoff for naming Burris to the job (no one’s credibly suggested that’s the case) and whether Burris is qualified to be a senator (clearly he is).

The Blagojevich mess will take care of itself over time.  I have my guesses about what will happen.  You probably do, too.  We won’t resolve that here.

So, what’s the point?  People and organizations in the public eye frequently create problems for themselves by asking the wrong question, sometimes in the name of doing the right thing.

Make sure you ask the right questions.  You’ll have a better chance of getting the right answers if you do.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?


The Monday Morning Media Minute is now available as an eBook.  My new eStore features five eBooks based on the Media Minute.  To check them out, visit my eStore and buy early and often.  The eBooks come as PDF files.  You don’t need special eBook software to read them.

The Winning Edge: Message Discipline

Monday, November 10th, 2008

I like a good food fight.  So, I’ve been enjoying the potshots the Republicans have been taking at one another since the election.  Actually, it started before the election.

Entertainment aside, the pre- and post-election fighting within the sometimes-competing McCain and Palin campaigns stands in stark contrast to the message discipline shown by the Obama campaign.

Part of the difference can be explained by the difference between a winning team and a losing one.  It’s a lot easier to stay disciplined when you’re winning.  But staying disciplined also helps you win.

I’ll leave it to folks smarter than me to figure out why Obama won and McCain lost.  But a few thoughts about the importance of having a clear message and sticking to it.

Know what you want to say and why you want to say it. You can’t develop effective messages until you know what you want to achieve (your objective) and who your audience is (who you’re trying to influence).  It’s important to take time before you go public to figure these out.  I’m constantly surprised at how often people start talking to reporters and the rest of us before they have a clear message — or even a clear objective.

Once you have your message, stick to it. That sounds easy enough, but it isn’t always as easy as it sounds:

  • Some spokespeople have an aversion to repeating themselves.  That’s a mistake.  Most of your audience won’t get your message until they’ve heard it several times.  So repeat yourself.
  • Everyone has their favorite way of telling your story.  Even when an organization takes time to develop messages there almost always are at least a few people who think they have a better version.  Maybe they do.  If so, adopt their version.  Otherwise, insist they follow the same script as everyone else.
  • People have personal agendas.  Just because someone claims to be speaking on your behalf doesn’t mean they don’t have their own personal agenda.  If they’re putting their personal agenda ahead of yours, they aren’t really loyal followers.  If they’re on your payroll and you have the power to do so either fire them or put them in jobs where they are no longer acting as spokespeople.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?


The Monday Morning Media Minute is now available as an eBook.  My eStore features five eBooks based on the Media Minute.  To check them out, visit my eStore and buy early and often.  The eBooks come as PDF files.  You don’t need special eBook software to read them.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Monday, September 1st, 2008

Do you find the presidential polls as interesting as I do?

At the beginning of this year, Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination and John McCain was broke, his campaign on life support and most people — including me — thought he was done.

And just a few months ago Barack Obama looked like a shoo-in for the White House.  He may still get there, of course, but he’s not looking like a shoo-in right now.

I’m not going to offer any political predictions.  I’ll leave that to the pundits.

But I think the ever-changing dynamics of the political polls are a reminder of two important lessons for those of us who practice public relations.

Lesson 1:  Telling your story effectively is a marathon, not a sprint.  The news release you issued yesterday was a resounding success with coverage beyond your wildest dreams?  Congratulations.  But your job isn’t done.  Your audience won’t even begin hearing your message until you’ve said it so many times you’re sick of it.  So, if you’ve got a story to tell that you really want the rest of us to hear, you need to keep telling it.  The same is true for your setbacks.  They hurt.  But one setback — or even a series of them — won’t decide the final outcome unless you let it.

Lesson 2:  If you don’t tell your story, no one else will do it for you.  I’m constantly puzzled by how many companies either don’t tell their story at all or water it down to take all the sizzle out of it because they’re afraid “something” will go wrong.  Telling your story effectively will often mean you’ll get pushback from your opposition or your critics.  But they don’t even have to bother pushing back if you’re not pushing forward.  Successful candidates — and other successful communicators — start every day with the goal of controlling the message for that day.  Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.  But you can’t succeed without trying.  And you can’t get anyone to hear your story if you don’t tell it over and over.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?


The Monday Morning Media Minute is now available as an eBook.  My eStore features five eBooks based on the Media Minute.  To check them out, visit my eStore and buy early and often.  The eBooks come as PDF files.  You don’t need special eBook software to read them.

Stick to the Script

Monday, June 9th, 2008

I love movies and plays. The best ones feel spontaneous because the actors have practiced their lines and moves so many times that they feel unscripted.

Follow their example.  Once you’ve defined your message, practice it until you can say it verbatim without sounding scripted.

Actors follow a script and rehearse. Musicians follow a script and rehearse. Dancers follow a script and rehearse. Professional speakers follow a script and rehearse.

You can follow a script and rehearse, too.  During media training, we sometimes develop messages as a group for the practice interviews that follow.  Sometimes we’ll spend more than an hour developing messages and honing them until each one is a simple statement that can be repeated in a few seconds.  Then, we write them on big sheets of paper and paste them on the wall where the people being interviewed can read them.

More often than not, the participants don’t say the message they helped to write the way it’s written on the wall the first time through.  Instead, they paraphrase what’s on the wall to sound natural.  Inevitably, the paraphrased version isn’t as good.  If it’s better than the one on the wall, we change what’s on the wall.

Following a script is hard until you’ve done it a few times because it feels scripted and rehearsed.  But if you do it right, the scripted version is your best version of what you want to say. So, say it that way. How do you make it sound spontaneous and unrehearsed?  By rehearsing it until it sounds spontaneous and unrehearsed.

That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?


The Monday Morning Media Minute is now available as an eBook. My new eStore features five eBooks based on the Media Minute. To check them out, visit my eStore and buy early and often. The eBooks come as PDF files. You don’t need special eBook software to read them.

Are You Paid to Lie?

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

As a spokesperson, are you paid to lie for your boss? Do you find it necessary to lie to your boss? And how strong an obligation do you have to keep your boss’s secrets secret?

Those are some of the questions raised by Scott McClellan’s new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.

Question 1: Are you paid to lie for your boss?

Here’s how CNN’s Anderson Cooper put it last week during a discussion of McClellan’s book: “Don’t these people lie all the time? Maybe lying is too dirty a word, but their job, they’re PR people, their job is to spin a story. Their job is to focus on one thing in answering a question and completely ignore the question you ask.”

And here’s how CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen said it: “Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.” He was ridiculing the Public Relations Society of America and others for suggesting McClellan may have violated the ethics of the PR profession by lying for his former bosses at the White House. Suggesting that telling the truth is an ethical obligation for PR people “strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal,’” Cohen said.

Cooper and Cohen aren’t alone in feeling those of us who work in public relations are paid to lie for our clients.

During the 20 years I worked in newsrooms and through much of my 25-year career in public relations, I would have told you one of my strengths is that I speak “the truth.” What I’ve come to understand is that I do my best to speak my truth as well as I can. And professionally I do the best I can to help my clients speak their truth.

People see things differently. And we’re entitled to present our point of view without having to make the case for the other side. When I’m representing my clients, I’m obligated to represent their point of view. That’s what they hire me to do. And I’ve taken their money with the understanding I’ll do my best to help them tell their story.

That doesn’t mean I have to lie or mislead by verbally dancing on the head of a pin with tortured interpretations of what the meaning of “is” is. In fact, I’d be doing my clients a disservice if I did.

My experience has been that good clients are at least as careful with the truth as any journalist I’ve met. And any client who expects you to lie or mislead on their behalf isn’t worth having. Keeping your integrity is intact is important. But you don’t have to put it in those terms. If you lie or mislead, sooner or later you’ll lose your credibility and your effectiveness

Did Scott McClellan lie for his bosses at the White House? I can’t say for sure, of course. But I believe he did. Did he tell “the truth” in his book? No. But he probably told his truth as he now sees it.

Does his book serve the national interest by pulling back the curtain of secrecy at the Bush White House? Maybe. I’ll leave that for others to decide.

But one thing his book has done is reinforce the stereotype that people like me regularly lie as a matter of course because it’s part of our job description. And that means he did all of us who practice public relations a disservice. He made it harder for us to do our jobs.

Question 2: Do you find it necessary to lie to your boss?

One of the most important — and difficult — things a good public relations professional can do for clients is give them advice they don’t want to hear. Over the years, I’ve seen too many of my colleagues who aren’t willing to do that. They tell their clients only what the clients want to hear.

I’m not providing a client full value for their money if I’m not willing to be honest enough to give them my best advice, even when I know they won’t like it. There are two caveats:

  • My job is to advise the client. But, ultimately the client gets to decide what to do. My job is to do what s/he wants, even if I think s/he should do it differently. If I feel strongly enough that the course of action the client has decided to take is unethical or will require me to do something I’m simply not willing to do, then I have a responsibility to quit.
  • If I know a client isn’t open to advice, I don’t give it unless asked. I do the best I can for them under those circumstances. And if I find I can’t do good work for them, it’s time to leave.

By his own admission, Scott McClellan reached a point where he no longer believed in what he was doing at the White House. He was lying for and to his bosses. He says he ultimately resigned because of that. Did he wait too long to resign? I don’t know. But the fact that he waited as long as he did to quit and waited until he had a book to sell to speak out will inevitably hurt the credibility of his message.

Question 3: How strong an obligation do you have to keep your boss’s secrets secret?

I see my obligation to honor the confidences of my clients as equivalent to the obligations attorneys, priests, therapists, doctors and similar professionals have to honor the confidences of their clients, parishioners or patients. With his book, McClellan has violated this trust.

The impact? Steve Lang, a former colleague and retired vice president of external communication for AT&T Broadband (now Comcast) said it well in an email to me last week. Steve says McClellan “has dealt a blow to PR people everywhere. One of the toughest parts of the PR job is gaining the trust of upper management, and gaining access to the decision-making process in order to be that voice of the public inside the company. Well, that just got harder, thanks to little Scotty.” I agree.

That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?


The Monday Morning Media Minute is now available as an eBook. My new eStore features five eBooks based on the Media Minute. To check them out, visit my eStore and buy early and often. The eBooks come as PDF files. You don’t need special eBook software to read them.